Oliver Evans: A Man Ahead of His Time

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A painting of the Orukter Amphibolos, likely a rather fanciful interpretation of the real thing, from a 1947 magazine ad for SKF bearings. The machine is depicted as emerging from the Schuylkill River and features front tiller steering, which doesn’t appear in other drawings of the machine.
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A drawing of Oliver Evans’ Orukter Amphibolos in ground transportation mode.
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A drawing of what is said to be Oliver Evans’ first steam engine. A small drawing of his Orukter Amphibolos appears in the upper right of the page.

Continuing the Oliver Evans story we began in the May issue, we get to the more controversial part.

Evans recognized the possibilities in steam-powered transportation. In 1786, he applied to the Pennsylvania legislature for exclusive rights to build steam carriages to move over public roads. The lawmakers, as Evans later wrote, “conceived me to be deranged,” and denied his request. A year later Maryland’s legislature had more foresight and granted the rights, “for Mr. Oliver Evans’ new Plan of applying Steam to Propelling land carriages to travel with heavie Burdens Up and Down Hills without the aid of Animal fource with such Velocity as may be Convenient, and be guided by a person sitting therein Secure from the Inclemency of the weather.”

Benjamin H. Latrobe, an influential architect and engineer who knew all the important people in Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore, published a report that ridiculed Evans as a “visionary, seized with steam mania.” Latrobe used figures to “prove” that all the load-carrying capacity of a steam vehicle would be expended in carrying fuel and water, leaving no room for passengers or freight.

After that, Evans seems to have given up on building a steam carriage. In 1795, he wrote the Young Mill-Wright & Miller’s Guide, which went through many printings. Early in the 1800s, he established the Mars Iron Works in Philadelphia, where he manufactured mill equipment and stationary steam engines.

Built in 1812 – 1815, the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia contained two steam engines, one built by Evans and one imported. George Sellers, a Philadelphia engineer who as a boy had known Evans, later wrote: “This engine (Evans’), if my recollection does not deceive me, was oftener seen running than the ‘great English engine,’ as it was then called.” Another user wrote Evans: “I take up my pen to inform you of the wonderful performance of our engine. We are driving at present three saws and millstones with ease; it does not appear to me that we use one-half its power … it is viewed with admiration and astonishment by everyone who sees it perform.”

Orukter Amphibolos

In 1804 the city of Philadelphia, needing a machine to clean silt away from city docks, ordered a steam dredge from Evans, who later wrote, “I constructed for the Board of Health of Philadelphia a machine for cleaning docks, called the Orukter Amphibolos or Amphibious Digger. It consisted of a heavy flat-bottom boat, 30 feet long and 12 feet broad, with a chain of buckets to bring up the mud, and hooks to clear away sticks, stones, and other obstacles. These buckets are wrought by a small steam engine set in the boat, the cylinder of which is 5 inches diameter and the length of stroke 19 inches. This machine was constructed at my shop, 1-1/2 miles from the river Schuylkill where she was launched. Yet this small engine moved so great a burden, with a gentle motion up Market-Street and around the Centre Square. When she was launched we fixed a simple [paddle] wheel at her stern to propel her through the water by the engine…”

Although Evans later claimed the dredge a great success, there is some doubt. John Watson, in his 1840 Annals of Philadelphia, wrote, “Oliver Evans had at one time a great steam engine standing for six months at the corner of Ninth and High streets, where it had broken and would go no further! It had been made to go under water, as it was said, and was to dig out riverbeds, docks and shoals. It had started from his premises and had gone that far on the streets.”

Apparently the health board didn’t think much of the Orukter. Late in 1805 it reported that Evans was working on the dredge’s problems and hoped for completion before “the commencement of the warm season.” In 1808, they finally gave up and paid Evans what he said he was owed. The next summer the remains of the machine, which had cost the city $4,000 (roughly $69,000 today), were sold for $31.10, and that was the end of the Orukter Amphibolos. George Sellers doesn’t mention it in his articles written for the American Machinist in the late 1800s.

So Oliver Evans may have had several “firsts” under his belt – the first steam dredge, the first steam vehicle and a paddle wheel steam boat, two years before Robert Fulton’s Clermont – or he may not: It’s difficult to say for sure.

Predicting the future

In 1813, Evans wrote the following prophecy:

“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly, 15 or 20 miles in an hour. Passing through the air with such velocity, changing the scene in such rapid succession, it will be a most exhilarating, delightful exercise.

“A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup at New York, the same day. To accomplish this, two sets of railways will be laid so nearly level as not in any place to deviate more than two degrees from a horizontal line, made of wood or iron or paths of broken stone or gravel, with a rail to guide the carriage, so that they may pass each other in different directions and travel by night as well as day; and the passengers will sleep in these stages as comfortably as they do now in stage boats …

“And it shall come to pass, that the memory of those sordid and wicked wretches who opposed such improvements, will be execrated, by every good man, as they ought to be now.”

As he grew older, Evans grew increasingly embittered by the people who initially scoffed at (and later stole) his ideas, as well as the short-sighted and ignorant bureaucrats who continually blocked the advancements he felt his inventions offered. In 1814, Evans wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress that included the following statement: “The writer … believes that as early [as] 1786, he himself had discovered useful improvements, which, if they had been promptly and extensively put into operation, and the savings or gains by the use of them collected into the public treasury, it would have been sufficient to have discharged the public debt, defrayed the expense of government, and freed the people of the U.S. from taxes.”

Evans was so upset that he destroyed the drawings and records of some 80 of his inventions. A fire destroyed the Mars Iron Works early in 1819, and Oliver Evans died a few months later on April 15.

The high-pressure steam engine has been given credit for making possible the Industrial Revolution in this country during the nineteenth century. As its developer, and as America’s first professional inventor, it’s a shame that Oliver Evans has been virtually forgotten by present day historians. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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